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Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences

Research opportunities provide students with practical experience

By Nadia Beidas

     Lewis students can acquire a number of skills by joining research projects. Dr. Amanda Harsy, co-chair of the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences, said these opportunities are “great for students who haven’t done research before to get started in research.”

     “Doing research with faculty members from one’s own university is a good stepping stone to make your resume look really good for another research opportunity,” Harsy said. She also suggested students to get involved with research by approaching a professor and doing a research project as an independent study, or be paid for faculty research project with funding for a grant such as Summer Undergraduate Research Experience [SURE] or Caterpillar, or a capstone project, or as a senior seminar. Harsy added the professors are willing to work with students.

     Dr. Piotr Szczurek, associate professor of Computer and Mathematical Sciences and director of the Data Science program, advises students to contact a faculty member and approach the faculty member about assisting with a research project, or present a research idea in order to get the experience of working on a research project. Szczurek also advises students to look into future opportunities with PUMA [Promotion of Underrepresented Minorities in Academic STEM] Alliance, SURE [Summer Undergraduate Research Experience] and STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics]. For more information about current projects, please visit https://www.lewisu.edu/sure/fac-projects.htm.

     Harsy added there are a number of benefits for research project participation for students. “Research projects help boost resume and often provides students a chance to get paid to work in the field, similar to an internship. Research projects helps students develop meaningful relationships with their research mentors, helps them identify with their field of study, provides effective career preparation, helps students learn to work and think independently, helps students develop problem-solving skills and think creatively and critically,” she said.

      Harsy also added student involvement in research projects show students can work on a project independently. During the research process, a student does not know the direction of the research, unlike the more structured learning in the classroom, Harsy said.

      Szczurek said students would get the experience of looking for answers that may not be obvious. With this experience, students will learn more problem solving skills to apply to different areas of science and computer science, as well as apply the skills to different aspects of their lives, according to Szczurek. Students also learn key skills as part of working on a project, such as coding and specific technology, he added.

     “Students also gain useful skills in terms of working with others and being able to collaborate,” Szczurek stated. He also said students will learn how to express their ideas through writing and presentations, and work on building their communication skills. Szczurek emphasized the necessity of proper communication skills when explaining the research findings, and the importance of the findings.

     Harsy said participation in research prepares students as they will have exposure to direct tools they will use on the job, and students will solve problems using creative skills. This is something they would do on the job, she added.

     According to Harsy, when a student talks to an interviewer for a potential job, the interviewer will ask the student about the research and the student will demonstrate the knowledge gained. “Being able to talk about a research project allows the job candidate to own that part of their education and be the expert in the room while talking about their project,” she said.  

     “Employers look for people that have research skills,” Szczurek emphasized. He added those with research skills could solve problems others may not be able to solve. Students with these skills are better able to “adapt to future changes in technology and types of problems the companies need to look at,” according to Szczurek.  

     In addition, these students are better lifetime learners, Szczurek said.

     Furthermore, students gain experience putting together presentations and going to conferences to present, Harsy added, and she added this also prepares students for their capstone projects.

     Students can prepare for presentations in a number of ways, Harsy stated. Students should “keep track of their work on the research,” Harsy added. She also added the students should also do a literature review to make sure of the current research in the field.

     Harsy advises her students to introduce the problem, go over the current background or methods used, the results, and then the future research. She recommends students practice presentations beforehand and time themselves to ensure the presentation is of a correct length for the time given. Harsy also advises students to practice giving the presentation in front of someone unfamiliar with the research.

      She also encourages students to look at examples of past presentations of similar research, and build their research project off of the past presentations.

     Presentations also benefit students in their future careers or continuing studies. “We are asked to share the results of what we find on the job,” Harsy said. In a job setting in the fields of computer science or mathematics one would “present results to your boss in a way that’s engaging and logical and tells your story,” according to Harsy. She added students get used to talking in front of a group during presentations, which is something they would have to do in a job.

Dr. Harsy, Dr. Meyer, Dr. Stephenson, James Sparks, Paul Buldak, Eric Redmon, Lauren Gerns and Miles Mena presented at the 2020 Joint Mathematics Meeting.

     This past January, three faculty members and five students from CaMS [Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences] gave presentations at the 2020 Joint Mathematics Meeting in Denver, Colorado. All the attending students were also part of the poster session.

     James Sparks, a senior majoring in data science, and Paul Buldak, a junior double majoring in computer science and mathematics, gave a presentation together called “Graph Theoretical Modeling of Fan Graphs in Self-Assembling DNA.” The Dr. James Girard Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Program and Lewis’ Doherty Grant supported this research project.

     Eric Redmon, a senior double majoring in computer science and mathematics, gave a presentation “Optimal Tilings of Self-Assembling Bipartite Graphs,” which was supported by the Lewis Doherty Grant.

     Lauren Gernes, a junior majoring in mathematics, gave a presentation “The Probability of Easily Approximating the Positive Real Roots of Trinomials,” which showed her research findings during her time at a Research Experience for Undergraduates[REU] at Texas A&M University.

     Miles Mena, a freshman majoring in mathematics, gave a presentation “Graph Theoretical Design Strategies for Modeling Self Assembling DNA Complexes.”

      Mena, Buldak, Sparks and Redmon also presented with Harsy and Dr. Cory Johnson, associate professor of mathematics at California State University San Bernardino, “Using Graph Theoretical Designs of Self Assembling DNA to Motivate Undergraduate Research.”

     “Students were able to go to interesting talks,” Harsy said. She also gave three talks, served on a panel and judged undergraduate students’ poster sessions.

     “It’s a great opportunity,” Harsy said. She added some students have never flown on their own before. She said students see what it is like to be a mathematician.

      Dr. Harsy, Dr. Marie Meyer and Dr. Brittany Stephenson, assistant professors of mathematics, also presented together “Preliminary Analysis of the Impact of Active Learning in General Education Mathematics Courses,” which received support via Lewis University’s Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Grant.

     Stephenson also gave a presentation “Comparing Intervention Strategies for Reducing Clostridioides difficile Transmission: An Agent-Based Modeling Study.”

     As a whole, the student experience of participating in research projects has been positive, Szczurek said. “I think students tend to have been happy about doing research,” Szczurek added.

     He also added students work on projects on the cutting edge of science. Students “tackle questions where there is no current answer,” Szczurek said.

     Szczurek advises students to choose research topics that seem the most interesting to them. “Don’t be afraid to contact the faculty member and ask about the research opportunity,” he said.     

     “Don’t be afraid to talk to your professors regardless of your current skill levels,” Szczurek said. “Many students are afraid they don’t have what it takes to be a researcher,” he added and emphasized, “Professors are looking for people with every kind of experience.” Szczurek added students can always learn any additional needed skills.

     “Go out there and pursue the opportunity,” Szczurek said, “It’s the type of opportunity I wish I had as an undergraduate.”

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